For all that’s ever been said
about climate change, we haven’t heard nearly enough
about the psychological impacts of living in a warming world. If you’ve heard the grim climate research that science communicators like me
weave into our books and documentaries, you’ve probably felt bouts of fear,
fatalism or hopelessness. If you’ve been impacted
by climate disaster, these feelings can set in much deeper, leading to shock, trauma, strained relationships, substance abuse and the loss of personal
identity and control. Vital political and technological work
is underway to moderate our climate chaos, but I’m here to evoke a feeling in you for why we also need
our actions and policies to reflect an understanding
of how our changing environments threaten our mental,
social and spiritual well-being. The anxiety, grief and depression
of climate scientists and activists have been reported on for years. Trends we’ve seen
after extreme weather events like hurricane Sandy or Katrina for increased PTSD and suicidality. And there are rich mental-health data
from northern communities where warming is the fastest, like the Inuit in Labrador, who face existential distress
as they witness the ice, a big part of their identity, vanishing before their eyes. Now if that weren’t enough, the American Psychological Association says that our psychological
responses to climate change, like conflict avoidance, helplessness
and resignation, are growing. This means that our conscious
and unconscious mental processes are holding us back from identifying the causes
of the problem for what they are, working on solutions and fostering
our own psychological resilience, but we need all those things
to take on what we’ve created. Lately, I’ve been studying a phenomenon that’s just one example
of the emotional hardships that we’re seeing. And it comes in the form of a question that a significant amount of people
in my generation are struggling to answer. That being: Should I have a child
in the age of climate change? After all, any child born today will have to live in a world
where hurricanes, flooding, wildfires — what we used to call natural disasters — have become commonplace. The hottest 20 years on record
occurred within the last 22. The UN expects that two-thirds
of the global population may face water shortages
only six years from now. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, there’s going to be
140 million climate refugees in sub-Saharan Africa,
Latin America and South Asia. And other estimates put that number
at over one billion. Mass migrations and resource scarcity increase the risk for violence,
war and political instability. The UN just reported that we are pushing
up to a million species to extinction, many within decades, and our emissions are still increasing,
even after the Paris Agreement. Over the last year and a half, I’ve been conducting
workshops and interviews with hundreds of people about parenting in the climate crisis. And I can tell you that people who are worried about
having kids because of climate change are not motivated by an ascetic pride. They’re nerve-racked. There’s even a movement
called BirthStrike, whose members have declared
they’re not going to have kids because of the state
of the ecological crisis and inaction from governments
to address this existential threat. And yes, other generations have also
faced their own apocalyptic dangers, but that is no reason to disregard
the very real threat to our survival now. Some feel that it’s better
to adopt children. Or that it’s unethical
to have more than one, especially three, four or more, because kids increase
greenhouse gas emissions. Now, it is a really unfortunate
state of affairs when people who want kids
sacrifice their right to because, somehow, they have been told
that their lifestyle choices are to blame when the fault is far more systemic, but let’s just unpack the logic here. So an oft-cited study
shows that, on average, having one less child
in an industrialized nation can save about 59 tons
of carbon dioxide per year. While in comparison, living car-free saves nearly 2.5 tons, avoiding a transatlantic flight —
and this is just one — saves about 1.5 tons, and eating a plant-based diet
can save almost one ton per year. And consider that a Bangladeshi child only adds 56 metric tons of carbon
to their parents’ carbon legacy over their lifetime, while an American child, in comparison,
adds 9,441 to theirs. So this is why some people argue that it’s parents from nations
with huge carbon footprints who should think the hardest
about how many kids they have. But the decision to have a child
and one’s feelings about the future are deeply personal, and wrapped up
in all sorts of cultural norms, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status,
education levels and more. And so to some, this debate
about kids in the climate crisis can seem like it came from another planet. Many have more immediate threats
to their survival to think about, like, how they’re going to put
food on the table, when they’re a single mom
working three jobs, or they’re HIV positive
or on the move in a migrant caravan. Tragically, though, climate change
is really great at intersectionality. It multiplies the stresses
marginalized communities already face. A political scientist once said to me
that a leading indicator that climate change is starting
to hit home, psychologically, would be an increase
in the rate of informed women deciding to not have children. Interesting. Is it hitting home with you,
psychologically? Are you perhaps someone
with climate-linked pre-traumatic stress? A climate psychiatrist coined that term, and that’s a profession now, by the way,
shrinks for climate woes. They’re getting work at a time
when some high schoolers don’t want to apply
to university any longer, because they can’t foresee
a future for themselves. And this brings me back to my main point. The growing concern about having kids
in the climate crisis is an urgent indicator
of how hard-pressed people are feeling. Right now, students around the world
are screaming for change in the piercing voice of despair. And the fact that we can see
how we contribute to this problem that makes us feel unsafe is crazy-making in itself. Climate change is all-encompassing and so are the ways
that it messes with our minds. Many activists will tell you that the best antidote
to grief is activism. And some psychologists will tell you
the answer can be found in therapy. Others believe the key is to imagine
you’re on your deathbed, reflecting back on what’s mattered
the most in your life, so you can identify
what you should do more of now, with the time that you have left. We need all these ideas, and more, to take care of our innermost selves as the environments we’ve known
become more punishing towards us. And whether you have children or not, we need to be honest
about what is happening, and what we owe one another. We cannot afford to treat the psychological impacts
of climate change as some afterthought, because the other issues, of science,
technology and the politics and economy, feel hard, while this somehow feels soft. Mental health needs to be an integral part of any climate change survival strategy, requiring funding,
and ethics of equity and care, and widespread awareness. Because even if you’re the most
emotionally avoidant person on the planet, there’s no rug in the world
that’s big enough to sweep this up under. Thank you. (Applause)